Some movies continue to haunt us long after we’ve watched them, and for me, the one film that defines that experience is the mockumentary-style ghost story Lake Mungo. Written and directed by Joel Anderson, Lake Mungo is both a masterful study in building dread and the use of camera and filming choice as part of the narrative.
For the Palmer family, a regular day spent swimming at the local dam rapidly turns disastrous when daughter Alice (Talia Zucker) goes missing, but that is only the beginning. Strange circumstances and secrets come to light as mother June (Rosie Traynor) and father Russel (David Pledger), along with their son Mathew (Martin Sharpe), attempt to contend with the loss of their loved one.
Lake Mungo is structured as a mockumentary, featuring interviews with friends and other family members as they attempt to come to grips with what happened, while also dealing with how little they actually knew about their beloved Alice.
Given the circumstances of the story, cast performances strike just the right balance between awkward, grieving, and searching—awkward at the intrusion of this mockumentary (and subsequent public interest) into their lives, grieving their loss, and searching for some way to become whole again.
Clear images of Alice are few and far between, her face more often than not obscured by old out-of-focus video or glitches in filming. Dated videos of the Palmers together as a family feature the fuzz that we generally associate with home videos from the ’80s and ’90s, and in this there’s the key: With Alice’s face almost always partially distorted or slightly out of focus, the camera and its film become an analog for the fuzziness of human memory. Add in the layer of Alice’s inclination to keep secrets, and Lake Mungo flowers into an entirely different level of meaning, investigating identity and what truly defines a haunting. How well do we know those we love most?
Even the close-ups of the family, as well as the shots of the landscape and sky, feature a visually rough texture that remains much more in line with how we perceive and experience the world. This attention to detail builds toward a genuine, emotionally authentic experience for the viewer. In contrast with the sharp image that is the standard fare (for good reason), this “reduction” in image quality in turn opens a new door of emotional accessibility with the narrative by keeping things so in line with lived experience.
Cinematography flows along masterfully with the story, highlighted by forlorn night-time shots of empty rooms in the Palmer home, with the camera panning across the empty space in such a way as to make the viewer feel as if they are the one doing the haunting. The Palmer family has suffered the kind of loss that no family should have to live with, and their unspoken cry of grief silently rings across the empty spaces of the home. There is now a void where their daughter should be. Additionally, the opening shots of the family are almost individual—there are almost no shots of the family together in one frame—indicating an internal splintering of the family structure, as well as personal isolation.
Reflecting the emptiness of both home and space, the sound direction in Lake Mungo reverberates with a tension that drives home the nausea of loss and the struggle of learning to live around the trauma of the death of a loved one. In the book Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief, author Darren Ambrose voices his distaste for movies with a soundtrack that essentially lead the viewer by the nose, telling them what to feel and when. To its credit (and strength), the soundtrack for Lake Mungo does no such thing.
How Lake Mungo builds dread is a fantastic confluence between cinematography, scene staging and sound direction. Not a film to abuse jump scares, Lake Mungo features a number of still images from the Palmer family, and while you may think you see everything at first glance, rest assured: You don’t. It is only after sitting with this image for close to a minute, the soundtrack seething with a muted tension in the background, that your attention is drawn to what had been staring you in the face the entire time.
With all of these elements woven together, Lake Mungo is a shining example of what can be achieved in horror, and how lost and disoriented ghost stories can (and should) make us feel.